Updated: Nov 23, 2021
Do you remember the last family upset you had? Maybe you were the centre of it. Then again you may have been a bystander but still seriously affected by it none the less.
Painful family dramas can leave you with indelible scars that impact on your relationships, career and general happiness.
It is never easy to cope with a dysfunctional family; they drain our emotional and physical energy. Managing the relationships and the conflicts can sometimes feel impossible.
However, I’m here to show you a brilliant tool, together with an exercise, to show you how dysfunctional family relationships work, why people get upset with each other and how to change the dynamics.
This blog is specifically for those of us who don’t understand why we get caught up in the dysfunctional family dynamics and really don’t get why they affect us so badly!!
The Drama Triangle
This tool is “The Drama Triangle”. It was developed by the psychologist Stephen Karpman. It’s a model that captures one of the most common triangular interactions among dysfunctional families: victim, rescuer, and perpetrator.
Within every exchange we play a part – and we have a responsibility for the part we play. These roles are called: victim, rescuer and perpetrator.
Victim: "Poor Me”
The victim avoids responsibility and becomes dependent, getting their needs met by having people do things for them. They also succeed in getting attention, for both the rescuer and the Perpetrator are focusing on them.
Rescuer “Let Me Help You”
The rescuer rushes to the aid of the victim and gets a two-fold ego payoff by being perceived in a positive light and simultaneously avoiding his or her own problems and feelings.
Perpetrator “It’s All Your Fault”
Every persecutor needs a victim, and their ego need of feeling powerful and superior is fulfilled when they blame, attack, and bully a victim. Like the rescuer, the Perpetrator gets to avoid any real feelings and fears they have.
When we’ve been raised in a dysfunctional family, we interact with others in a ‘neurotic’ way. In many cases, as adults, we choose to play the victim because, as children, we were victims of dysfunctional parents.
Being victims of our parent’s dysfunctional behavior caused us problems. In response to these problems we had to develop survival skills to make sure we stayed safe and joining the family drama was one of them.
At other times we may have taken up the other two roles of rescuer or perpetrator. These roles are tied up together. We may find we switch from one to another at a moment’s notice.
Sometimes we feel we have no power over this – it just happens and we can’t understand why. By way of some explanation, if we were raised in a dysfunctional family, the chances are that we were taught to play these roles from the day we were born.
How Do These Roles Negatively Impact Us?
As victims we feel as though we have no power and no choices. We are at the mercy of others and we cannot take our own decisions. We discount ourselves and prefer others to see us as having no influence. We feel ignored, we feel hopeless and we feel helpless. We also feel tremendous shame for having these feelings.
As perpetrators we feel angry about being the victim and we believe that others have made us like this, so we turn on them. We are enraged at the way others treat us and, consequently, we don’t want anyone near us. We make sure that no one gets in our way. We behave abusively by turning our self-abuse onto others. We can see that we frighten others and, even though we are remorseful, it doesn’t stop us.
As rescuers we look at the ‘victim’ and feel it is our duty to rescue them, whether they want it or not! We do things for others or rescue them because we want something back – but we don’t tell them what it is. Underneath our ‘good deeds’ we are waiting to get noticed and get our rewards. Let’s face it, what would they do without us? It is our job to keep others together. If it weren’t for us they wouldn’t survive. When we don’t receive our reward we turn back into the victim and feel helpless, hopeless and futile once more.
That’s About Us, What About Them, The Dysfunctional Family Members?
It’s good to step back, look at these roles and work out which ones your family members lean towards.
I know my mother was the perpetrator but she was also a brilliant victim. She played the victim to my father who responded by rescuing her. She played the perpetrator to me and I became the victim, which of course I was because I was a child. She never rescued anyone because she always made sure she was rescued.
As a victim, I learned to submit to my mother at a very young age by trying to be as good as possible so that I didn’t upset her in any way and I grew up to be your classic ‘people pleaser’ always:
Saying sorry a lot
Feeling responsible for others’ feelings
Pretending to agree with everyone
Acting like the people I’m with
Being frightened by angry people
Couldn’t say no
Once I grew up and learned about the Drama Triangle, I saw how the dynamics between us played out.
Even as an adult, I stayed the victim and my mother stayed the perpetrator, always criticising me for everything I did, was or achieved. In her company, there was never one moment of pleasure for me, just shame, pain and anger.
I came to see that I couldn’t control her or expect her to change; the only person I could change was myself.
This was both heartbreaking and liberating. Heartbreaking because I accepted she was always going to criticize and hate me; liberating because I had a new found freedom.
How To Change Dysfunctional Family Relationships For Good
‘Our discontent begins by finding false villains whom we can accuse of deceiving us. Next we find false heroes who we expect to liberate us. The hardest, most discomfiting discovery is that each of us must emancipate himself.’ Daniel J. Boorstin
The only way to change dysfunctional family relationships for good is to look at our own behavior and tell the truth.
We have to begin by delving deep and asking ourselves what is our true motivation behind our behavior? What is it we want when we take on the mantle of the victim, perpetrator or rescuer?
We don’t really want to feel helpless and hopeless and to be seen like this. Given the choice, we would prefer to feel liberated, blissful and excited about being alive.
10 Questions To Help Understand How To Change Dysfunctional Family Relationships
Here’s some questions that may help you understand your own, and other’s, behavior and give you some answers on how to change.
The more honest you can be, the more the results will tell you.
Take out some paper and a pen to answer these 10 questions:
When you get caught up in family disagreements and feel you are lost, when have you experienced them before? When did they start? Put three memories to the experiences. How often do you experience them? Do you experience them in the company of strangers or is it only with certain members of you family or friends?
What triggers their reoccurrence? Who or what triggers these feelings? What situation do you get yourself into that triggers these feelings?
Why does it always happen when you go to work/visit your brother/ argue with your wife? (Find your own situation.)
Which role do you play in this situation i.e. victim, rescuer or perpetrator? Why do you take up this role? How long have you been playing this part?
If you become the victim, then who is the perpetrator?
Who taught you this role? Or from whom did you learn it?
What benefits do you gain from being here? Why do you play this part? What is your payoff? Who are you trying to please? And why?
By playing this part, what situation are you trying to avoid? What feelings do you avoid when you play this part? What is it in yourself that you are avoiding?
What are the roles that others are playing? Who do you see as the perpetrator? If you are the perpetrator, who is your victim? If you are the rescuer, whom are you rescuing?
What do you need to do to change this? If you had no fear of anyone doing anything threatening to you, and no negative outcome was possible, what would be an ideal scenario for you to make changes that benefited you?
This is an opportunity to map out your best-case scenario to help you understand why you get so caught up in other’s drama and how you invite everyone to keep it going.
When Changing The Dysfunctional Family Dynamic Works For Everyone
Like a see saw, it always works that when one family member over-functions, the other under-functions. Bearing this in mind, it’s safe to say that the changes we make in ourselves can have a positive effect on our family members.
A common example among families is when the parents stop criticizing.
When they respond to their older teen and young adult children with respect and stop trampling across their boundaries, the children are in a better position to step out of the victim role and become more autonomous and responsible.
Another by-product is that when parents stopped focusing on their children, they are able to improve the intimate relationship they have with each other.
In my own relationship with my brother, when I stopped behaving like a victim and became accountable for my financial mess, my brother changed. He stopped trying to tell me how to run my life and what I should do. Instead he became much softer and more respectful which meant we were able to engage as adults again. To this day we are great friends.
Don’t be afraid to try something different. If it feels a little uncomfortable, that might be a good thing.
If you want help with your family dynamics, my best suggestion is to pause and focus on you.
If you feel your feelings fully, you will see if you’re escaping your feelings by taking part in one of the drama roles. Try to step away from the roles completely. By taking responsibility for your life and feelings, you are better able to allow others take responsibility for their lives and their feelings.
Don’t mind-read, blame, rescue, scapegoat, be a martyr or allow yourself to be a victim.
Instead, set firm boundaries and stick to them. Respect other people’s boundaries. Be consistent. Don’t look for an excuse or justification to dare to live your life’s passion.
Change takes commitment and time, so allow the change to take hold steadily and gradually until it becomes the new normal.
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